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Independent review calls for security of electronic balloting in industrial action to be tested in pilots

The security and resilience of electronic balloting (e-balloting) should be tested before it should be considered for use in votes on potential industrial action, an independent reviewer into the potential use the technology has said.20 Dec 2017

In a new report, Sir Ken Knight said (86-page / 1.40MB PDF) there are "unanswered questions" around e-balloting that mean that it should not be implemented immediately, and instead called for "e-balloting be tested in the context of non-statutory balloting over a reasonable period".

E-balloting must be "seen to be as secure and reliable as the current postal approach", ensure those entitled to vote had an opportunity to do so, ensure voting takes place in secret, and minimise "the risk of any unfairness or malpractice", he said.

The purpose of pilot testing of e-balloting "should be to examine its reliability, not least the need to be certain that the technology is capable of withstanding cyber-attack, not only by nation states, but also those who may be motivated by the desire to disrupt and deny services and thereby damage vital trust in industrial relations," Sir Ken said.

The UK government said it would consider the recommendations in Sir Ken's report and "consult with experts" before responding.

Sir Ken was appointed by the government in 2016 to conduct an independent review of e-balloting for industrial action votes. A call for evidence on the "appropriateness and ease" with which electronic balloting could be introduced for industrial disputes was subsequently opened as part of the review earlier this year.

The government committed to a review during the parliamentary debate around the 2016 Trade Union Act, but said at the time that it "requires stronger evidence" that e-balloting can be as secure, and as free from the risk of "exposure to intimidation or fraud", as the current postal-only system.

The Trade Union Act came into force on 1 March 2017. It introduced a 50% voting turnout requirement before trade unions can proceed with industrial action, an additional threshold requiring 40% support for industrial action among non-ancillary staff regardless of turnout in relation to "important public services", as well as a number of further measures.

Sarah Ashberry, a specialist in industrial relations at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "There is no commitment here or even a recommendation to introduce e-balloting for strikes. Unions will be disappointed as it’s clear they will be waiting a long time for electronic voting to be extended to strike ballots.”

"Employers will be relieved. Some of our clients were concerned e-balloting could increase the frequency of ballots on industrial action. With a cheaper process, and perhaps reduced waiting time for a result, unions may have been more encouraged to refer things to ballot, when temperatures ran high," she said.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) expressed disappointment with the recommendations made in the review.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said unions would "engage with any pilots" but called the review "a missed opportunity".

"Union members should have access to the same modern balloting methods as other organisations," O'Grady said. "If it’s safe and secure for political parties to elect candidates and leaders online, why can’t unions have electronic ballots? It’s time to bring union balloting into the 21st century. The government must stop dragging its feet on this issue."